by Patrick Williams
Newly hired Laval Rocket head coach Joel Bouchard will be able to call on a few memories of his own as his new players try to stick in the NHL.
During a pro career spanning 14 seasons and often spent on the NHL-AHL shuttle, the defenseman played 293 AHL games for affiliates of the Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and his latest employer, the Montreal Canadiens. He also played 364 NHL regular-season games before retiring after time spent in the AHL in 2007-08.
The Canadiens hired the 44-year-old Bouchard, one of the hottest coaching names in the Canadian Hockey League, to take over in Laval. Bouchard replaces former Rocket head coach Sylvain Lefebvre, who was not retained after six seasons guiding Montreal’s AHL prospects.
“The main reason he is here is his success, his energy as a coach,” Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin told reporters at a news conference at Place Bell on Thursday. “His track record speaks for itself. We’re excited to have Joel as a head coach.”
In their first season in Laval, the Rocket endured a difficult season. A 12-game winless streak to close out the regular season landed the Rocket last overall in the AHL with a 24-42-7-3 record.
Bouchard arrives in Laval from the nearby Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he served as general manager for the past seven seasons and manned the bench for the past four seasons. He won 145 of the 244 regular-season games that he coached with the Armada.
This season Blainville-Boisbriand won the QMJHL regular-season title with a 50-11-4-3 mark that also placed third in the CHL. The Armada advanced to the President Cup final.
Bouchard also garnered executive experience in one of the most high-pressure roles at the international level. As general manager of the Canadian national junior team, he won a silver medal at the World Junior Championship in 2017 and followed up that with a gold medal this past January.
Bergevin also announced that Rocket assistant coaches Donald Dufresne and Nick Carriere will not return. Laval general manager Larry Carriere will transition from that position to director of player personnel at the AHL level and take on a senior advisor role with the Canadiens.
Carriere will oversee scouting at the AHL and ECHL levels, something that Bergevin the organization has lacked in the past.
“We just want to be more on top of it bringing [in] guys that we like,” Bergevin explained. “That will be his main role, to make sure that we have a good [ECHL] pipeline that if we do get injuries and recalls [in Laval] we are able to bring those players along.”
A DIFFERENT CHALLENGE
Where Bouchard handled players limited to a five-year window in the CHL, the nature of AHL rosters leads to far more variety in ages and career outlooks for his charges. He will be dealing with rookies fresh to the pro game, players trying to remain in Montreal’s long-term plans, and established veterans who may already have significant NHL experience.
That will be a different challenge, Bouchard acknowledged to reporters.
“I think you need to have a strong message with everybody, but obviously everybody has a different situation,” he outlined. “If you’re a coach that says, ‘They all have to adjust to me,’ you’re in the wrong place.
“You’ve got to adjust to all of the guys. They’re all different. They all have different realities.”
Calibrating those different personalities is a significant portion of any AHL head coach’s job description.
“My job is to develop them and get the best out of them in a winning environment,” he said.
The Habs have developed plenty of players over the past decade in the AHL. Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, captain Max Pacioretty, and former defenseman P.K. Subban are among the graduates of a development system that also produced current Ottawa Senators head coach Guy Boucher.
Winning complemented that development. Price won a Calder Cup in 2007. Pacioretty and Subban went to a conference final in 2010.
However, Canadiens prospects have not experienced a winning AHL environment recently. A Montreal AHL affiliate has not won a playoff round since 2011, a frustration that has denied prospects the opportunity to experience a lengthy run deep into the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Bouchard will try to marry development with the winning atmosphere that he experienced with the Armada.
“As much as we’re working on development, we’re working on winning,” Bouchard said. As long as there is a scoreboard, I will coach to win.”
Canadiens management had seemingly taken steps toward that objective last summer.
The Habs signed proven AHL veterans in forward Byron Froese and defenseman Matt Taormina, who played key roles with the Syracuse Crunch in a run to the 2017 Calder Cup Finals. Taormina arrived after winning the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman in 2016-17. Both were significant moves by any standard.
The Rocket named Froese their first captain on Nov. 3. However, he was recalled four days later and never played another game for the Rocket.
Injuries on the Montreal roster resulted in several key personnel losses for the Rocket. Goaltender Charlie Lindgren and defenseman Noah Juulsen along with forwards Daniel Carr and Nikita Scherbak all divided time between the Canadiens and Rocket.
Bouchard wants his young prospects to take on key roles while pushing a winning environment in Laval.
“They need to have some success here, they need to be part of the game,” he said. “This is our job as a staff to give all of the tools to players to be ready to not only to succeed in Laval, but when they get to the call to be a good NHL player.
“That’s exciting to me. To see guys called up do well. That’s our job, and it’s exciting.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.